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Don't be fooled, Utah; we must change the caucus system

Lines of people waiting to get into a caucus meeting at Elk Ridge Jr. High in South Jordan. Thousands turned out at their Republican Party neighborhood caucus meetings around Utah, Thursday, March 15, 2012.
Lines of people waiting to get into a caucus meeting at Elk Ridge Jr. High in South Jordan. Thousands turned out at their Republican Party neighborhood caucus meetings around Utah, Thursday, March 15, 2012.
Scott G. Winterton, Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

By Tiani Coleman

I'm disturbed by opinion pieces creeping up all around the state indicating that record turnout means "changes may not be needed" to Utah's caucus system ("Well done, Utahns, for representing at state Democratic and Republican caucuses," March 19). Editorials assume large turnout is sufficient to honor the principle that "government has been established by, of and for the people."

Did large turnout in Cuba's last election honor the principle of government by, of and for the people? Sound over the top? It's not far off. I used to buy into the prevailing view (held by activists, at least) that the caucus system is the ideal and that those complaining only need to show up and participate to help make it more representative "of the people."

Don't get me wrong, large turnout is certainly better than sparse turnout. But after many years of involvement, getting a close-up look at the system from nearly every perspective, I'm convinced that the caucus system is so flawed that it will never be by, of and for the people, so long as it keeps "we the people" from getting our own vote on who our representatives in government should be.

It's completely twisted to defend the system with the idea that "we're a republic, not a democracy." Our constitutional republic is a representative democracy. The key: We the people are supposed to get to vote on our representatives in government. Voting on delegates whose candidacies are not publicly available until after we show up, based upon a 1-2 minute speech, is not at all the same, especially since those delegates are not bound to vote in any particular way.

By championing this system, we're saying that since most people are incapable of making their own decisions about who should represent them in government, we must take the right to vote away from the people at large and give it to delegates who are committed enough to the party and the process to make informed decisions.

And then we wonder why Utah has one of the lowest voter turnouts in the nation. If we want people to exercise greater personal responsibility in the election process, we need to give them greater opportunity to do so — and not just a few of them.

The caucus system increases party power and decreases people power. With the party as gatekeeper, there's much room for manipulation and corruption at every stage of the process. Whether or not the caucus system needs to be changed shouldn't be dependent upon whether we like the convention results. Nor should we read into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' efforts to increase caucus attendance. The church has always encouraged people to vote and do their civic duty, including caucus attendance in Utah. That doesn't necessarily mean the church favors the caucus system.

Some say that everyone gets to vote for who their representatives will be in November — that the caucus system is a private affair conducted by the parties. I disagree. Not only is the November ballot in Utah a complete farce for most races, but parties play a quasi-public role in the public election process. They appear on ballots with straight-ticket voting options, have publicly funded races, reap check-a-buck funds, make replacements in public office, deny people the chance to get their names on a ballot and more.

If parties were private the same way the Girl Scouts are, I'd have no problem with parties using whatever process they want. Let's fix the system.

Tiani Coleman has a JD from Cornell Law School and is a past chair of the Salt Lake County Republican Party. This year, right before the caucuses, she officially registered as an unaffiliated voter and attended her caucus as an observer with no voice.